Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Flashback 2010: Here's one thing you didn't know about Mike Royko

      Sir Andrew Davis died Saturday. The renown conductor and music director steered the Lyric Opera through challenging times for two decades. I of course had reason to talk with him over the years, and figure this piece, about an unexpected connection between a certain  gruff columnist and opera, might merit sharing. What stands out, 14 years later, is that in 2010 the Lyric could put on "The Mikado,"  which would never happen today — cultural appropriation, etc. I'm fairly certain the unnamed colleague was Albert Dickens, the well-loved sports department assistant. We talked about opera all the time, and I miss him, and miss that whole era where one went to a place regularly and found interesting people there.

     Now and then, a reader will try to compress all my flaws into one sharp jab. "You're no Mike Royko," he'll say, meaning that I am not a Chicago born and bred tough guy writing the universally acclaimed best column in the city.
     And I always surprise him with cheery agreement — yes indeedy, I'm no Royko, nobody's Royko, it's impossible for anyone to be Royko ever again and, having somewhat known Royko and thus vaguely familiar with all that being Royko entailed, I'd prefer to carry my own load than his. Thank you.
Non-Royko and son heading boldly to the 
Lyric in 2010 to hear "Macbeth."
     For instance, by not being a tough guy, I have no tough-guy image to maintain. Thus I am free to go to Opening Night at the Lyric Opera, as I did Friday, to hear Verdi's "Macbeth," done up in my poncy tuxedo and froufy silk bow tie and twee gold studs, and not have to worry about shocking anybody.
     Royko, meanwhile, was captive to his legend. He had to keep a secret, which, with the opera season under way and him gone lo these many years, I now feel free to divulge: Mike Royko loved opera.
     "Dad was a classical music fan, and passionate about it," said his son, David Royko. "While there were columns alluding to that, it wasn't something that fit his image."
     Royko was a Lyric season-ticket holder.
     "He was a serious fan of opera, of operas that he liked," said Royko. "He had strong opinions about the opera. I remember him reaming out Carol Fox, director of Lyric Opera in the '70s. There was a premiere of a Penderecki work, 'Paradise Lost,' this incredibly atonal, difficult stuff to sit through. And was saying, 'Why don't these guys produce ''Porgy and Bess''?' He was just revolted by Puccini's 'Girl of the Golden West.' He thought it was absurd, a spaghetti western with cowboy hats."
     Which brings us to a little-known truth about opera: You don't have to like everything. In fact, it's certain you won't. Just as booing butterfingered infielders is part of being a fan at Wrigley Field, one of the joys of opera is scorning stuff you don't like.
     Earlier this year, I was at the press conference announcing this season's lineup — "barnburners" like Bizet's "Carmen" and Wagner's "Lohengrin," but more obscure works like Handel's "Hercules" and froth such as Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado."
     The opera press present fell like wolves upon the selections, which were either too popular or too obscure. Didn't you just do "Carmen" five years ago, somebody asked.
     And then there was "The Mikado" — not a proper opera at all, but a comic operetta and sung in English at that.
Sir Andrew Davis
(photo courtesy of the Lyric Opera)
     "I know there are folks who don't think we should be doing that," said Sir Andrew Davis, the Lyric conductor. "But if you're going to do 'Fledermaus' and going to do 'The Merry Widow,' why not? I think the music has depths and I intend to bring them out."
     One reporter asked a question I'm sure many subscribers wonder about: Why not just fill the schedule with all-time favorites?
     "We do have an obligation to do new work," Davis explained.
     At first that struck me as eat-your-peas pedantry — art as duty. It's an entertainment, I thought, plagued by memories of Berg's "Wozzeck." Why assume airs? Put the slop where the pigs can get at it.
     But you can't discover you love something until you hear it — I had never heard of Franz Lehar until I saw "The Merry Widow" last year — now my kids play it on on the stereo. Every opera has its fans.
     For instance; I dutifully listened to CDs of "Macbeth," getting ready for the performance. Hmmm, I thought. Opening night was swell — I dragged my 13-year-old linebacker along, and he pronounced it "very good."
     So now we're in the newsroom, and I'm trying to explain my cool reaction to a colleague. "Let's put it this way," I said. "There are 12 Verdi operas in my copy of Henry W. Simon's 100 Great Operas, and 'Macbeth' isn't one of them. I just don't like the music."
     Which prompted another colleague to leap to its defense, literally standing up.
     "You don't like 'Macbeth'!?" he said, incredulous. "It's one of my favorite operas — I have it on my iPod. I can't wait to go."
     And he started to hum the overture.
     One man's ceiling is another man's floor. Like life, opera has highs and lows; you can't spend every minute with your hands folded over your sternum, drowning in bliss.
     Do you find "The Mikado" lightweight? I think it's both hysterically funny and tuneful and am taking 100 readers to its first night for my annual opera sweepstakes.
       Darn, out of room again. Circle Dec. 6 on your calendar, and I'll explain how to win tickets in my column Friday.
     — First published in the Sun-Times, October 6, 2010


  1. Royko once wrote a column about how much he loved Fred Astaire movies. IIRC, he not only loved the movies but considered Astaire his favorite actor and a paragon of class, comportment and style. He thought his readers would be surprised by this.

    1. Fred Astaire died in 1987, at the age of 88. In tribute, Royko penned that column. I remember it well. As a teen-ager, in the late Forties, he would hop a streetcar to a theater in another neighborhood, where nobody would recognize him, and indulge in his passion. Wonderful imagery. I loved it. Sounded just like the way later generations would slink off to watch porn.

      And, yeah, I WAS mildly surprised. That's why I still remember that column. Royko was a high school drop-out, whose family lived above a Northwest Side tavern. He tried hard to portray his youth as that of a hood and a punk...roaming the streets, ditching school and going to Cub games, acting tough, and hanging out in pool halls. It's been a while since I read the Royko biographies. But from what I can recall, his reality was a lot different.

    2. Found it. From Royko's Tribune column, 6/23/87:

      I don`t remember precisely when it happened. Sometime after I started shaving regularly. But I was looking up at a movie screen when it dawned on me that I was watching just about the sharpest, hippest, coolest guy in the world. In my social circle, we didn`t use words like debonaire or sophisticated, but that`s what I meant. And one of the most talented. If anybody danced better, he`d need an extra leg.

      From that point on, I saw every Astaire movie ever made–the new ones when they came out, the old ones when they were on TV or, more recently, in video cassettes. I still think most of the plots were sappy. In fact, I have trouble remembering the names of the films, or which Astaire movie was which.

      But the names and plots aren`t important. What mattered was the music, written by the best composers, and Fred Astaire dancing and singing or just looking debonaire. He could stroll across a room with more style than most dancers can dance. As the years went on, I found something else about him that I admired tremendously. It was that I knew very little about him, other than what I saw on the screen.

      I didn`t read about his love life or about his punching somebody in a nightclub. I didn`t read about him storming off a set, feuding with a director, fighting with the press or babbling about what he liked to eat, what he liked to drink, snort or smoke. In other words, he did his work, went home, closed the door, and said:

      ”That's it, world. You get my performance. The rest belongs to me.”

      Monday, the guy who--in my boyhood eyes--was a skinny geek, died. He went privately and quietly–a class act right up to the end.

  2. There's no such thing as "cultural appropriation", as everything idea on Earth has be stolen or borrowed from someone else. As an avid watcher of Antiques Roadshow, people are constantly bringing in antiques that were influenced by other cultures. There were periods of Japanese influence in European ceramic designs, ancient Egyptian influenced jewelry, etc.

    As for opera, my sole appreciation of it is limited to the great Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny cartoons making fun of it, as in "Kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit", I believe based on some Wagner obscenity! There's also one making fun of the Barber of Seville.

    1. I look forward to the day when we talk about "cultural appreciation," instead of "cultural appropriation."

    2. I agree, Audrey, that "borrowing" certain cultural styles, cooking, art, music, etc., if done with appropriate attribution and respect, should be appreciated, even though Black, indigenous or other minority members might object, insisting that they or only they should profit from exhibiting aspects of their culture.

      But, of course, insisting that "cultural appropriation" doesn't exist because there's nothing totally original among human cultures, is nonsense. It exists whether we like it or not. The evidence is undeniable that aspects of minority cultures have been exploited for ages by majority artists and performers with little or no appreciation of the cultural sources.


    3. Cultural appropriation is when you take from people without compensating them. Like early rock stars did to the black blues players
      You're basically stealing intellectual property from a less powerful group and using it to make money for yourself without giving them credit

    4. Utterly absurd FME! Nothing requires giving credit to anyone. Sam Philips was agog when he found Elvis, a white man that could sing like a black blues singer. He had been looking for one for years.

    5. well actually clark st. many things do. you've heard of plagiarism , copy right infringement , attribution? there are legal requirements and also common human decency. commodifying and trivializing iconic images leads to stereotyping and disrespect. think Washington redskins or cheif wahoo. or don't im not sure why I engage with you.

    6. Clark St's example of Elvis and Col. Parker actually proves the point of cultural appropriation. Elvis didn't just mimic Black style, he recorded the songs and did the dances he learned from Black culture. They just didn't give credit or royalties. For a nation that believes it parents and copyrights and litigation, American is awfully quick to help themselves to the culture, ideas, and inventions of people they refuse to acknowledge or compensate.

  3. While reading obituaries of Sir Andrew Davis, I discovered I attended his next-to-last public performance: On December 22nd, he conducted his orchestration of Handel's"Messiah" at the CSO.

  4. Oh, for pete's sake. The Mikado is a satire on British society and attitudes not a depiction of anything resembling (or supposed to resemble) actual Japan. Look at the items on the Mikado's "little list."

    1. You mean "the nigger serenader and the others of his race"? It's hard to see something when you're not looking. And for the record, I love "The Mikado." But one must dwell in the society in which one exists.

  5. Royko ( who I miss dearly) and opera do go together. And why not?

  6. I attended my first Opera performance last year with my best cousin.
    I'm fairly certain I had never been to one before and neither had she
    At 65 years old I thought. Well let's do this thing or I may never
    Left at The first intermission. We turned to each other and said do you want to go? And we left.

    On the other hand, I've been to four baseball games just this week watching my son the pitcher in one of them. I'll go to four more next week. Several friends joined me in the fun . I brought Maxwell Street polish and pork chop sandwiches. You get to sit so close to the game but there's really nobody around you. It's not like crowded. It's free The team is very good. The best baseball team in Chicago and this is probably going to be his last year of playing baseball, at a D1 University. Uic is Chicago's only one.
    Come on out sometime. If you come on Saturday you can bring your dog(s)

    1. Did not realize that Chicago State University discontinued baseball.

    2. Yes that was a sad turn of events

  7. Don't sell yourself short, bet Royko never wore out an Everlast punching bag and had to go buy another.

    1. No, because as a kid who grew up on the streets of Chicago, he probably had faces to punch, even as a youngster. Royko seems to have always had a mean streak, even before the drinking years.

    2. He reminded me, perhaps improbably, of a Joni Mitchell lyric: "You're mean when you're loaded..."

  8. My dad loved the Pirates of Penzance and the Mikado. He sang tunes from those operettas while shaving in the morning before getting dressed for work. They were in a tight rotation along with “Roll Me Over in the Clover”, “Hold That Tiger” and a selection of dirty songs from his days in the army.


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.